President Obama’s address to the nation on Sunday night was reminiscent of Jimmy Carter’s famous July 1979 Oval Office so-called “crisis of confidence” speech, which exhorted Americans “to take no unnecessary trips, to use carpools or public transportation whenever you can, to park your car one extra day per week, to obey the speed limit, and to set your thermostats to save fuel.” Like Carter, who wrung his hands at an energy challenge that he seemed unable to surmount, and which he labelled a threat to the United States, Obama flailed away at the challenge from the Islamic State (IS), which he likewise has been unable to overcome. At least Carter put forward a number of initiatives, both that he was able to take as president, and that he requested from the Congress, though few of them were actually realized. Obama did not even do that much.
What the president offered was a rehash of old policies and pronouncements — a grudging recognition that the terrorism that was threatening America had some relationship to extremist Islamism — though he did not utter those words, nor even employ Hillary Clinton’s “jihadism” formulation. He seemed constitutionally unable to detach himself from his long-standing straw-man argument that the only alternative to his administration’s so-called strategy for “defeating” IS was a massive incursion of American land forces that would mire the United States in fighting a decades-long insurgency.
The president has refused to recognize that the insurgency in Iraq, and indeed, the emergence of the IS in both that country, Syria, and elsewhere in the world, can be directly tied to his withdrawal of American forces in December 2010. It was only after that withdrawal that Nouri al-Maliki confronted no restraints when persecuting his country’s Sunnis, which led them to support IS and fight under the leadership of men who once commanded Saddam Hussein’s troops. President Obama also has long conveniently ignored the fact that his rationale for withdrawing American troops, namely, Iraq’s inability, or unwillingness, to agree to a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), or its equivalent, to protect American troops from the vagaries of Iraqi law, has not prevented him from sending thousands of troops to Iraq, without any such agreement in force.
Indeed, there has been no mention of a SOFA-like agreement with Syria, where the president has commenced to dispatch ground forces in dribs and drabs — 50 Special Operations personnel here, 100 or so there. After all, with whom would he sign a SOFA? With President Bashar al-Assad? Not very likely.
The fact is that American strategy for combatting the IS is completely bankrupt. The administration has no new ideas, and is accomplishing very little with its old ones. Washington continues to refuse to arm the Kurds with serious offensive weapons, or to contemplate how to effectuate a safe zone — which even Hillary Clinton advocates. And, of course, as the president highlighted in his speech (whose brevity was clearly meant not to interfere with Sunday night football) he refuses to send a sufficiently large number of land forces, perhaps a brigade-sized force, to assist the local troops fighting IS, which would provide the necessary “skin the game” to spur the contribution of Gulf Arab forces to a fight that is also theirs. Again, even Clinton supports an increase over the pathetically small number of Special Operators soon to be deployed to Iraq and Syria.
The president may have intended to reassure Americans that they need not live in fear of the Islamic State’s increasingly international reach. He may have sought to convince them that the American-led coalition had already contained IS and was in the process of crushing the terrorist Caliphate. Apart from his own increasingly few partisans, he is unlikely to have done so, any more than Jimmy Carter restored American confidence after telling them that they suffered from what he termed, and will forever be remembered as, their “malaise.”
Foreign Policy, december 7, 2015